Maturity came for Princess Anne on a lazy June day when raspberries turned plump on their canes and prairie-clover bloomed across the rolling heaths of Brichton. The royal daughter awoke from her afternoon nap and found her sheets stained crimson red. Within moments of reporting this occurrence to her chambermaid, the queen received the news and dispatched armed soldiers to escort Anne to the castle’s highest tower. There she remained suspended in a cage like that of a bird sealed with lock and chain for nearly a year, her feet never to touch the ground until sworn by marriage. The solitude wore on her. She cried, swung on her swing, and taught herself to whistle and to sing. Only the most expendable of staff were permitted access Anne’s lonely abode, which didn’t say much for Bertrand Stills, a cheerful page nearly twice her age.
“I smell flowers,” she said to Stills one day. Even in this world without windows, she caught the scent of spring stirring from Stills’ pollen-drenched clothes. “You’ve been outside?”
“Spring has sprung, M’lady,” Stills replied as he handed food and water up through the bars of her cage. It was a daily ritual, one that Stills looked forward to despite his fear and awe of her. Legend told that a woman in Anne’s condition could sour wine at a glance, and that crossing her shadow tempted death. But Stills overcame these fears at appreciation of her voice and her beauty. He enjoyed Anna’s company, and even her less-than-subtle flirtations sometimes amused him. A young man and not of the superstitious variety, he knew that her solitude had more to do with ensuring chastity than with sour wine or evil shadows. Anne smiled down at him, chewing a bite of white bread and honey.
“Then my suitors have arrived?” she asked hopefully.
“Yes, M’Lady. More than a hundred, though Queen Grace has narrowed them down a score.”
“And they are each clever and kind?” she asked hopefully.
“Handsome too,” Stills smiled. Three suitors in particular had caught his attention: Prince Eliades of Chace, Prince Barok of Baedun, and the retired Admiral Dulles, current director of the Shipping and Trade League.
“Will they spank me the way you used to when I misbehaved? Oh, I hope so!”
“I never spanked you!” Stills choked, blushing.
Anne sighed and tossed her flaxen hair teasingly. High on her perch, she looked like an angel in that dismal place. “Pity,” she said. “I must have dreamed of your firm hand. Tell me, do you suppose dreams come true?”
“No wonder your parents locked you away,” Stills winked. Of course, he found her attractive—any man of taste would—but his station prevented his knowing her in the Christian sense. They each understood that fully, which was why they could tease and press against innocence so openly. Stills focused his masculine energies into sharing household gossip. “They’re all good men,” he said, his tone transparently political. “Honest men. Well-bred, yes. Any one of them will make you a suitable husband.”
“Even Dulles, huh?” Princess Anne wondered, a sandal dangling from her painted, wriggling toes.
Stills bit his lip.
True to his name, Admiral Dulles was a boring sort who rarely spoke except to shout orders at his brow-beaten staff. Apart from one chambermaid, who vowed that Admiral Dulles kept his room as tidy as his books, the entire castle staff quietly rooted against the man though Queen Grace favored him. As sneaky as he was aloof, Dulles noted the Queen’s almost unnatural interest in foreign antiquities and whispered many false promises in her ear.
“I’m sure Dulles is a fine enough man in his own right,” Stills said.
“And what of Prince Barok?”
“He’s a decent enough—”
“He’s a brute!” Anne’s eyes flashed in candlelight as she leaned forward from her perch. “You can say it, Stills. He’s a brute. A brute! Brute-brute-brute!”
“Where do you hear such things?” Stills reacted defensively while not denying the fact. Unlike Admiral Dulles, Barok never stopped talking. He imparted such wisdoms as “Real men don’t bathe!” and “Women can’t digest beef!” He once stated that the finest women of his land had flat heads, allowing them to carry three buckets of water or milk at a time.
“I may be imprisoned here, but I have ears,” Anne said suggestively. She swung forward and caught the bars of her cage in both hands, pressing her pug nose and full lips in between. She had become truly a woman in this past year, a fact that Stills could not deny. “Now, tell me about this third suitor that has all the chambermaids’ tongues flapping….”
Stills sighed. Anne referred, of course, to Prince Eliades.
One benefit to Stills’ lowly position was that few bothered to lower their voices in his presence. It came as no surprise when he overheard Queen Grace and Admiral Dulles discuss the many ancient treasures Dulles could procure for her. All he needed was some certainty, some assurance, that he would win the tournament for Anne’s hand.
Queen Grace coyly obliged.
Stills relayed this information of subterfuge to one of the chambermaids, and word buzzed throughout the hive of gossipy staff. Off-duty staff attended the games to win Princess Anne’s hand, and they cried foul at the slightest transgress of tournament rules. They protested the mediators’ calls, argued with the judges, and generally made spectacles of themselves because they had their own favorite to win. The only real challenger to Admiral Dulles and the brutish Prince Barok was Prince Eliades.
Ah, the prince…!
“Oh, he’s a handsome one!” the attendants would say. “Such a charmer! So brilliant! Did you hear him the other night? Recites poetry like wind through the forest, he does!”
When Stills noticed that younger women drew straws to attend to his room, he knew that Prince Eliades was the one. What puzzled Stills was Eliades’ lackluster performance at the games. A little investigation informed him that Eliades was known as the finest rider in Chace, a kingdom legendary for its cavalrymen. Furthermore, Stills learned that Eliades had gained some notoriety as a marksman. So how had he fallen dead last in archery?
The question provoked Stills until, late one night, he wrapped himself in a cloak of audacity followed by a few drinks from the winery and charged upstairs to the guests’ quarters. He pounded at the prince’s door, certain that the man had thrown the games. Before he could think twice of his rash intrusion and sneak away, a voice answered from the other side.
“I am honored by your interest, young lady,” Eliades said through the door, approaching with the shuffled gate of a tired man. “But as I stated earlier, I really must get some—” the door opened—“rest. Oh, it’s you! Stills. That’s a relief! I’ve had ladies of your castle calling on me all night! Unless you have come to….”
“I favor the fairer sex,” Stills smiled.
“Fine. Then what is on your mind, Master Stills?”
Had he just said what Stills thought he said? Master Stills?
That was his name of course. But most people including the queen referred to him as “boy.” It was a rather demeaning title for a man of thirty, and he’d grown somewhat used to it. Prince Eliades invited him in, offered him a seat beside his bed so that they might chat informally about the weather and local food, laughing and speaking easily like old friends. Only one thing the prince said irritated Stills, though he should not have let it.
“You people here behave,” Eliades said, “like a pack of superstitious, backward-thinking, no utensil-using, barbarians!”
Perhaps those weren’t his exact words. He was quite careful in his phrasing, but the point was clear. For Prince Eliades, the mere idea of locking a young woman in a lonely tower went beyond the fringe of poor taste. He saw the people of Brichton as quite beneath him—no more than savages for their outdated customs.
“So,” Stills groaned. “You are throwing the game to avoid marriage with Anne?”
“My father asked that I come here to compete,” the prince replied. “Well, I have competed. Duty fulfilled, I shall return home defeated.”
Stills frowned. The last thing he expected was for the prince’s refined accent to offend him. The prince wore his hair neatly along his high forehead, and his eyes were kind and knowing. Yet his mouth expressed the most about him—not so much the words he chose, but the way his lips curled when he said them. As though he took offense by even being here, in the small kingdom.
“I never meant to insult you,” Prince Eliades said, reading Stills’ concern. “Look, where I’m from we make amends over a drink.”
He poured, and Stills accepted. The stuff Prince Eliades had in that flask of his from the shelf nearly burned a hole in Stills’ unaccustomed throat. “I don’t normally drink,” Stills said, sounding a bit horse. He held out the mazer for another dose. Sipped. And then drank. “Don’t judge us by our bygone traditions. Princess Anne is so much more than what we appear. If only you could meet her!”
“So why shouldn’t I?” Eliades said, and his eyes were frighteningly clear. “What kind of village would keep her hidden from her prospective husband?”
“City!” Stills replied fervidly. “Not a village. Chace is a city. In its infancy, perhaps.”
“I can arrange something. For you to meet. Not for your happiness, Prince. Though you will find that. But for hers. Should you choose to fully participate.”
Prince Eliades smiled, not too broadly. “To happiness,” he said, raising his flask.
“To the princess,” Stills replied and reached for another drink.
The sky descended darkly over Brichton. Lightning flashed with rain as Stills bundled up his body to attend the games. He cheered as he could from the stands. Prince Eliades performed so poorly that Stills wondered if he’d forgotten his promise. Yet the young Prince seemed eager to meet Anne. Could it be that he cared more about the spectacle of her confinement than the lady herself? The page waited until long after dusk before he led the prince to her room. He carried a torch, having already warned Princess Anne of their impending intrusion. She seemed more frightened than eager.
Her worries scattered at first sight.
“You’re as handsome as they said….”
Sighs all around—Stills waited, the room draped in silence except for the rolling thunder outside. Prince and Princess stared at one another—perhaps gazed achingly is a better phrase—without speaking beyond their breaths. Stills interjected at last.
“You may approach her,” he prodded Prince Eliades. “Unless you think her shadow will burst your heart!”
“Indeed, my heart is tempted to burst!” Eliades replied.
“Then I shall handle your heart gently,” the Princess smiled demurely.
Stills might have laughed except that to be there, in the moment when young love took hold, meant more to him than anything. Anne offered her hand from the bars of her cage, and Prince Eliades trembled to kiss her knuckles. With a great weight lifted from his shoulders, Stills left them alone to talk and bat eyelashes like lost lovers found again in the night.
The people of Chace were known for many things: their folk art, their music, and a penchant for law and order. But perhaps they were best known for their tragedies.
Prince Eliades played at the games like a new man. He rose quickly from the bottom ranks to the top four, proving his speed and stamina, his hand steady with quiver and bow. The other suitors complained. They said that he was a shill—that he had held back earlier only to mock them. Prince Eliades paid no mind. His love focused him, and twice he was so deep in thought that he passed Stills in the castle halls without a hello or so much as a nod. Stills took no offense. He had seen love before, and he knew the singlemindedness of winners.
As for the castle staff, the games offered them grand theater. They hovered outside doorways and windows, gossiping and tallying scores on their fingers and toes. They placed wagers—contrary to Brichton Law—and some of the ladies spoke of which threaders might best compose nuptial gowns. Wouldn’t it be so much like Princess Anne to invite the staff to her wedding, whatever her uppity mother might say?
Queen Grace, of course, was less than thrilled.
Prince Eliades hadn’t yet caught her attention. She hardly noticed him because the oafish brute Prince Barok had taken the lead from her own choice, Admiral Dulles. One morning while Stills cleared the tables in the Great Hall, he saw the queen take Prince Barok aside. Stills eavesdropped. A good rumor always helped the day go by, and he knew the queen intended to manipulate the man. Stills never guessed the extent.
“It appears,” Queen Grace said to Barok, “that you will soon lose the contest to Dulles.”
“Hah!” Barok barked. “Beg’n yer pardon, Lady, but these’re a man’s games. I see few men on the field ’sides myself!”
“Of course,” she replied, dreaming of the gifts Admiral Dulles had promised her. “That is why I want only a ‘real man’ for my daughter. You understand.”
“Yes, well—” she cleared her throat. “There’s been a change of plan. The final days of the games rely less on … manly strength and more upon matches of wit. Cards, dice, and so forth.”
“No one told me ‘bout that!”
“No, I would think not,” Queen Grace replied. She appeared frustrated. True, stupid men are easily manipulated, but one must first learn to speak their language. Queen Grace focused her eyes and her words. “The others fear you. They fear your … strength. In any event, I fear circumstances have put you at a disadvantage against Admiral Dulles.”
“Admiral Dulles oughta wear a kirtle!”
“Then you understand why—”
“He’s got the legs for it!”
“Yes. Then you understand why I don’t want my daughter to marry such a … weak sort of sailor. That is why—”
“Boats are for children! Hah-hah-hah!”
“Quite. That is why I think we need to take matters into our own hands.”
“Huh, what’s that?”
“I want you to rescue my daughter.”
Prince Barok scratched his thick skull audibly. “Rescue her? You mean like, take her off somewhere?”
“Precisely!” Queen Grace acknowledged. “That is why—” and here her voice became so low that Stills had to strain to hear “—that is why I have left my darling daughter bound and gagged in her room.”
“Bound, you say? You mean, all tied up?”
“I like ‘em tied up, Lady!”
“Fool, you will address me properly as—” The queen took a long breath. Her smile was all teeth now. “I want you to take her, to rescue her, from a life with that sniveling little admiral. You will carry her from the tower and through a secret hallway that I will show you. It leads to the postern at the back of this castle. Upon exiting, you will take Anne to a grove just to the castle’s east. You must wait there, hidden. I’ll spread word that some vagabonds have captured her. Meanwhile, I’ll send someone to meet you at the grove and escort you home with my daughter. You need only say that you killed her kidnappers, and you will be a hero—a savior with no need for silly contests!”
“Won’t Anne tell on me?”
“She herself devised the plan! She no more wants to spend her life with Dulles than you do!”
“I don’t know….”
“Are you afraid?” Queen Grace gently prodded. “No, not you. So strong. So virile. My daughter, you see, is quite beautiful. Did I mention she works as hard as ten mules?”
“More like twelve.”
Barok’s gaze drifted, as though grappling to imagine a woman so strong. Stills was horrified. Not because Queen Grace would allow this man to flee with her daughter, but because he saw through her plan. The queen meant to have this dullard killed! Caught in the grove with her kidnapped daughter, Barok would face certain death and clear the way for Admiral Dulles!
Stills snuck away to the kitchens. He told what he knew to the steward and several cooks and maids he trusted. “It could be worse,” the steward said. “At least there will be one less man for Prince Eliades to contend with.”
“Indeed!” a serving maid agreed. “One less competitor for Eliades sounds right fine by me!”
“But our man can win rightfully!” Stills argued, aghast at popular opinion. “Why must an innocent man die over this?”
“Men die by the thousands,” the steward shrugged. “But we have only one Princess Anne.”
“She’s like a daughter to us all,” said a chambermaid who’d slipped in for a taste of beef soup. “We want what’s best for her. Besides, it seems the queen has made up her own mind. It’s none of our concern, I say!”
The assembly grew as more staff entered the fray. They bandied opinions in the kitchen, voices rising like the clamor of so many soup spoons stirring within metal pots. None of it mattered. Stills understood now that they could talk and plan, cheer their favorite contender and hassle the judges, but it was all mere entertainment. Political intrigue and gossip kept them busy, but they had no voice. No true sway in public affairs. Looking back, Stills would cherish the night he introduced Prince Eliades to Princess Anne. It was the one time in his simple life where he changed something … where he reached beyond his realm and made a difference. He had seen the love in Anne’s eyes.
Losing faith, he clung to that moment.
Prince Barok managed to find Princess Anne in her room as per the queen’s evil plan. He saw her wrists bound and her mouth gagged and that must have pleased such a boorish type. He tossed her over his shoulder like sack full of eels, carried her through the hidden hallways and tunnels, out through the postern and into the grove. Stills watched helplessly from a window as the figures moved through the moonlight, but no castle guard waited to confront Barok as Stills had suspected.
No, the queen, who made sure Prince Eliades was near, screamed that her only daughter had been stolen, that she’d seen a man throw her over his shoulder like a savage and race to the hillsides. With none other so brave to heed the call, Prince Eliades naturally took it upon himself to rescue the princess. He secured a horse from the livery and rode away while Queen Grace gathered an audience outside the castle gate. She wept and she wailed, and she pulled her dark hair. Her eyes went red, and Stills admired her acting talent as she threw herself to the ground and pounded her fists. He never felt so powerless.
“Why has he taken her from me?” Grace shrieked, and by now soldiers and castle guards gathered ’round. Across the heath, where raspberries grew fat and prairie-clover bloomed, a lone horseman emerged from the dark grove. His sword glistened with Barok’s blood, and upon his horse, he carried darling Anne.
Her face, blank with horror.
Her dress, torn.
Her arms bruised.
The queen and Barok had been less than gentle with the darling girl, but they would take none of the blame. Queen Grace stood, and she pointed her finger.
“That’s him!” she cried. “That’s the one who stole my princess!”
Stills tried to speak. He tried to do what was right. By the time he understood the extent of the queen’s plan, it was too late. A single arrow had taken flight. It rose from the still fluttering bow of Admiral Dulles and landed squarely in Prince Eliades’ neck.
A second arrow pierced his heart.
Men rushed to gather Princess Anne from the dead prince’s arms. Others stayed back, still fearing her gaze, her shadow, in her current condition of young womanhood. None believed her mad cries and horrified protests since she was, after all, afflicted. Admiral Dulles was, of course, a hero.
The furtive glances and secret smiles shared between Queen Grace and Admiral Dulles haunted Stills for the rest of his life. Yet he said nothing. He loved Princess Anne – perhaps more than anyone knew. Yet he understood his lot as a lowly page, and no good could come of loose talk or meddling. Princess Anne herself knew to end her protests that very first night of the murder. Admiral Dulles soon wed her. Chambermaids helped choose a dress, and serving girls styled Anne’s hair. Stills himself chose the main course for the nuptial dinner, a bittersweet compliment for his years of service. Much fanfare and much celebration ensued. Anne bore many beautiful children and as the saying goes, she and Dulles lived happily ever after.